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American Dream in a ditch

Matt Zalaznick

Americans in the last half century have been through a Great Society and a Morning in America, and this year we’ve been invited to join the Ownership Society (though the membership fee for the latter is a lot higher in Eagle County). Panglossian politicians and marketing agencies – and writers like Mitch Albom who trumpet soothing emotional conformity – push these rosy platitudes but fail to blot out the darkness and defiance that have, in the works of two great American writers, unalterably dirsrupted the idea of the American Dream.And those two writers, Arthur Miller and Hunter Thompson – both of whom died this month – will probably still be read by high school students and the counter-culture when the catchy titles are only trace left of “compassionate conservatism” and “Tuesdays with Morrie.”Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” from 1949, and Thompson “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” from 1972, skewered the concepts that daring not to distrub the universe leads to happy endings and that every American can and should strive to join the establishment. Wasted work ethicMiller burst the bubble of promised comfort with his eternally failed salesman, Willy Loman, the grand reject of the American Dream. Loman’s sexual, paternal and professional ineptness gives the lie to the notion that Americans who follow the rules and put in an honest day’s work are the Chosen People of the modern era. No economic Eden, not even the just reward of paid-off bills, awaits Willy after a life of banal toiling and fatherly fumbling.Politicians and advertising executives have tried to convince us that any American who works hard and wants a piece of the pie will be satiated with a cell-phone camera and a Hummer, but Willy starves up till the very end. What is most powerful about Willy’s doom is that, though he’s no Bill Clinton-style over-achiever, he has no extraordinarily tragic flaw pre-ordaining an unfulfilled death. Along with the usual assortment of minor sins, Willy has brains, ability and does what he’s supposed to according to 20th century American scripture. But bad luck disables him, the mundane circumstances of the business cycle topple him and domestic happiness chronically eludes his family.Monstrous AmericaHunter Thompson could have taught Willy a lesson – screw the American Dream, to hell with keeping up with the Jonses. Dare to eat a peach! Thompson’s mission, massively drug-addled and strident though it was, was to poke gaping holes in the hypocrisy of what Americans expect of themselves and each other. In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey Into the Heart of the American Dream,” Thompson’s barely fictionalized self-portrait, Raoul Duke, invades the towering monument to unbridled American capitalism. Las Vegas and its sideshows and casinos also are where drones like Willy Loman gamble and fritter away the paychecks that are supposed to buy them the anethesia of the heavily marketed American Dream. And though, on a more profane level, the incredible drug use may be a battle cry and vindication for counter culture addicts and other intoxicated free spirirts, Thompson’s narcotics, speed and hallucinogens are a lens through which everyday American society is distorted and made filthy and monstrous. In one scene, Thompson sends his character wasted into the heart of a police convention – the seat of American order. It’s a raging blasphemy, a disavowal of the cherished rules Willy Loman struggled to follow and by which he was ruthlessly squashed. Dirt and dustThompson’s character is in Las Vegas to cover a dirt bike race, a chaotic, dangerous sport and no rhapsodized pasttime like baseball, which itself has now been so tarnished by cheating and drug abuse that its most sacred achievements – the home run records – have lost much of their meaning. But the dirt bike race is not just anti-baseball, it’s a dizzying, chaotic symbol of the animalistic expression that rules the unrepentant flip side of the American Dream, a place where risks are taken, where dirt and dust obscure decency and order, and where any and all drugs are preferred to fad diets, holiday dinners and celebrity gossip.Neil Young, who wrote the soundtrack for one of the movies made about Hunter Thompson’s life, said of his only No. 1 hit song that it “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” He added that he met more interesting people there. Hunter would agree and Willy Loman may have been better off following Young away from the mainstream. Of course, it’s our artists – not politicians, best-sellers and advertising campaigns – that show us that doing the same old thing can be a spiritual disaster and that choosing the alternatives to what’s expeceds of us can be an excellent and ulimately fulfilling choice. City Editor Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or mzalaznick@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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